• 26 August 2019
  • Mias de Klerk
  • 10 min

The importance of life meaning – at work

Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.

Albert Camus

Could having a clear sense of purpose help you live for longer? A 2019 study by JAMA Current Open says yes. The study saw researchers from the University of Michigan School of Public Health track data from 7000 individuals over age 50. The findings? A strong sense of purpose is linked to decreased mortality. So, finding meaning and purpose is key in all facets of your life. Including work.

That’s translated into more and more people – millennials and Gen Z-ers especially, perhaps – seeking meaning in the world of work. People are looking for companies that actively make a positive impact on society. They’re wanting to align themselves with businesses that live and breathe similar values to their own. This is directly linked to individuals wanting to find a fulfilling higher purpose; a purpose that results in a higher significance than just surviving. We want to feel like we’re making a difference.

The importance of meaning in life

Life meaning is a core element of spirituality. Spirituality is about fulfilment and a feeling of connectedness with others and the universe. Although spirituality can manifest itself with religious undertones, religion differs in that it contains theological elements, such as dogma and rituals. These elements may be conducive to enhancing our experience of spirituality, but may also often be restrictive and destructive, and thus be contradictory to the unrestricted nature of spirituality. 

Why is workplace spirituality important?

We bring our spiritual selves to work and much of our spiritual odyssey occurs within the context of the workplace. Because work is a central part of human existence, we are searching for a way to connect our working lives with our spiritual lives. However, the importance and relevance of life meaning is mostly ignored in the workplace. Perhaps because it’s seen as too philosophical and irrelevant in a competitive work context. But its significance is revealed when we ask questions like

  • What makes my life worth living?
  • What are the conditions under which I experience my life as meaningful?
  • How does my work contribute to making my life meaningful?

Finding meaning in life is a basic human motivation

Viktor Frankl, Jewish psychiatrist, Nazi concentration camp survivor and author of the acclaimed Man’s Search for Meaning, argued that the essence of human motivation is the “will to meaning”, a striving to find and realise meaning in life. He reasoned that there is nothing that so effectively helps people to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a purpose in life.

Research in psychiatry and clinical psychology supports Frankl’s views, confirming with overwhelming consistency that a sense of meaning is an important correlate of mental and psychological health. For instance, higher levels of meaning have been found to correlate positively with self-esteem, control, life satisfaction, engagement, a generous attitude towards others and positivity. In contrast, lack of life meaning (meaninglessness) has been found to correlate with a lack of well-being and with psychopathology in a roughly linear sense. Among others, lack of meaning manifests in loss of social identity, social isolation, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, neuroticism and anxiety.

These findings show that meaning relates to almost every component of well-being with only slight variations in the strength of the associations.

What are the factors affecting quality of work life?

There’s a rapidly increasing body of research that confirms that life meaning influences positive work outcomes and attitudes significantly. People who have a higher sense of meaning show more commitment towards their careers and are more willing to make significant career changes to align their work with their sense of meaning. As a result, they experience more career satisfaction and career progress.

They’re even willing to continue to work in the absence of financial necessity. However, a sense of meaning does not result in commitment that is forced or unbalanced. People with a higher sense of life meaning tend to lead healthier and more balanced lifestyles.

One of the most powerful predictors of job satisfaction is intrinsic motivation, much of which stems from a sense of meaning. A sense of meaning provides the motivation to execute our daily work, even if the work itself does not particularly stimulate us. It also prompts us to take risks, set challenging life goals and learn new things.

Our workplaces are spiritual places. Business education and leadership have a spiritual tone that we are not always aware of but cannot ignore. Our task as leaders is also on a much deeper level of spiritual interaction with our team than is often anticipated. Similarly, as educators, we need to connect on a deeper spiritual level with students than we often do through our business and leadership courses. We have a duty to assist people on their journey to find meaning in their existence; we need to enable them to a find and fulfil a higher life purpose through their work. Because, according to Friedrich Nietzsche:  He who has a ‘why’ to do something, can bear with almost any ‘how’.

For more information on how USB-ED’s leadership courses can help you find meaning in every facet of your life, visit our course page.

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